Painting en Plein Air Across the Grand Canyon

To step from pavement onto dusty trail is to cross an invisible line into the present. The idea becomes the act. After months of planning and preparing, this first step feels strangely improbable. The central question is this: Can I paint my way across the Grand Canyon?

Rim to rim, the trail is 23 miles long. A hiker loses about a mile of elevation before crossing the Colorado River on a suspension bridge and ascending to the opposite rim. The trail follows perennial tributaries so water is not an issue. Heat is.

My first attempt to paint the Grand Canyon literally brought me to my knees. I was so overwhelmed with the challenge of painting that although I stayed hydrated, I forgot to eat. Unbeknownst to me, the desert sun was leaching essential electrolytes from my system. The next morning, I awoke with what felt like the worst hangover of my life. I learned that I suffered from hyponatremia, colloquially known as water intoxication. The remedy was simple: Pringles and Gatorade. I learned to take the canyon seriously.

Already I have passed through a land full of surprises, simultaneously vast and intimate, lush and austere. In the morning I hike the spur trail to Ribbon Falls, a hidden gem of a waterfall accessed through a narrow side canyon. On the way, I stop to pick prickly pear fruit, violet bulbs that grow like fat bruised thumbs along the edges of cactus paddles. I carefully break the fruit off and scrape it on a boulder to remove the needles before peeling its leathery skin. The flavor is subtle, but the flesh is juicy. The simple joy of fresh fruit in the desert is worth the effort.

Ribbon Falls is tucked in a grotto of overhanging red quartzite. An elegant wisp of a thing, it cascades from the lip and splashes down an oversized mound of moss-covered travertine. For the Zuni tribe, Ribbon Falls is a sacred place of pilgrimage; it is the womb from which they were born, rescued by the sun from the dark underground depths. Told to look the sun full in the face, the people cried in pain, and where their tears fell flowers grew. Cleaned and sculpted into human form, the Zuni people traveled forth into the world.

Viewed from any angle—geologic, religious or artistic—Ribbon Falls is singularly unique: a lush, sheltered oasis in the desert. To cool off, I periodically leave the easel and take a dip in the creek. Here I discover a trio of surprises: a dipper napping only a few feet away in an alcove, a pair of frogs that look like they have been spray painted silvery-gray, and fresh mint growing along the creek.

At sunrise, the clouds part, and the fin of a towering butte is bathed in a tangerine glow. At the rim, I have had the luxury to return to a spot two or three days in a row at the same time to finish painting. Here I have one shot before shouldering my pack and covering a half-dozen miles to the next camp. I have to make it count, to trust my instinct and not fuss over details. My limited pastel selection forces me to think of color in relative terms, not for how accurately it matches the subject, but for how it functions in concert on the page.